Monday, June 23, 2008

Why can't you behave?

If I complained about every case of bad audience-member etiquette I witness in my theater jaunts, I'd never get around to talking about the show. But at the end of last week I ran into a few exceptional cases that I really think you need to hear about.

First, on Thursday, I went to a preview performance of the Roundabout's revival of The Marriage of Bette and Boo. I'll talk about the play separately; for now I just want to focus on the experience of seeing it on that particular night, with that particular audience. The first thing I noticed, as I was taking my seat in the Laura Pels Theatre, was that the audience included director Walter Bobbie and, a few rows behind me, playwright Christopher Durang. Perhaps knowing that made me hypersensitive to audience-etiquette issues; it was certainly an odd experience to be sitting directly in view of the playwright while watching his play. But this would have been a notable evening under any circumstances. You had, first of all, your standard "people talking out loud to their companions as though they were at home watching television." But that's to be expected when you're at a not-for-profit, subscription-based theatre; subscribers seem to feel it's their prerogative to give feedback during the performance, instead of afterward. The elderly couple just behind me had no compunctions about sharing their thoughts with each other, in full voice, at several points during the performance; this was especially distracting because their thoughts tended to be hilarious. For example: there's a character in the play whose speech is completely unintelligible -- one of those Durang flourishes. Everything he says is a mush of vowels, although he goes on talking as though nothing were wrong. At one point in the second act -- this was after some ninety minutes of the play had elapsed, at which point the conceit was long established -- the old lady said to her husband, "He sounds just like Justin." For the rest of the scene, I wondered: Who is Justin? And, have you considered writing a play about your life? Because if this world feels familiar to you, I think you might just give Durang a run for his money.

This let's-all-talk-out-loud routine also gave rise to a skirmish -- in the front row -- that I was afraid might lead to violence. ("Shut the F up!" "What's your problem?!" etc.) It went on for most of the first scene. It's a good thing the actors can't see or hear anything that happens past the edge of the stage, because they just might find a thing like that distracting.

But the Audience Jackass award goes to the men a couple rows behind me, sitting dead center in what were basically the best seats in the house. Great view of the stage -- and, since it's a small theatre, the stage had a great view of them. They were middle-aged businessmen, wearing suits and bright red ties (both of them, I think). And every once in a while, they decided to have a conversation. I'd be watching the play, and then all of a sudden I'd hear a competing dialogue coming from behind me. Hostile stares did nothing to deter these guys; they didn't even seem to realize other people were present. And then, during the second act, the talking went on so long that I turned around to see that one of the guys was on his phone. And it wasn't a fumble-for-the-cell, "I can't talk, I'm at a play!" situation (although that's horrifying enough). This guy was carrying on a conversation, totally at his leisure, and cupping the headset mouthpiece in his hands like that made it okay.

I was sort of hoping someone -- an actor, Walter Bobbie, Christopher Durang -- would stop the performance to call the guy out and eject him from the theatre at that point. Part of me wondered if that person should be me. But although half the audience turned to stare at this guy, the show continued, and as far as I know, he is still at large today. For all I know, he may be one of the Roundabout's biggest donors. But he's still an incredible asshole.

On Friday night, the husband and I went to the Beacon Theatre to see a Steely Dan concert. (His choice -- but I'm not ashamed to admit I've had "Peg" stuck in my head for days now, and don't you try to pretend you don't love "Reelin' in the Years.") The tickets were pricey, but that's the kind of venue in which I prefer to see live music. I don't enjoy the whole crowded-club, standing-all-night, too-loud speakers, two-drink-minimum, drunks-spilling-beer-on-you scene; I'd much rather have a seat in a theatre with good acoustics and watch the show like the civilized wet blanket I am. Since Steely Dan attracts a largely baby-boomer crowd, I figured we were in for a pretty low-key evening. But there was at least one person in attendance who would have preferred to be seeing the band in the aforementioned crowded club -- and guess where her seat was? Directly in front of mine! Lucky me! Actually, I'm not sure which seat was "hers," because she switched with her two male companions multiple times during the evening. (Plus, one or another of them was always on the way to or from the concessions stand for more drinks.) But she was in front of the husband and me, already plainly drunk even before she started on the first of the four drinks she downed during the show. And when they launched into "Hey Nineteen," she let out a drunken "Wooooo!" and stood up to dance. And stayed standing up, writhing like a pole dancer, even though not another soul in the entire orchestra section was on his or her feet. You'd be surprised how effectively one skinny drunk girl can block the view of the stage. Sharp, annoyed whistles and shouts of "Down in front!" came from behind us, followed by louder cries of "SIT DOWN!" which our dancing friend seemed not to hear. It was as though the pressure and shame that should have reached her was falling just short of her and landing in my lap. This went on for the entire song; this girl wiggling her hips and waving her arms, and everyone behind her fuming and sending mental beams of hate in her direction. So, when the song ended, my very patient husband tapped her on the shoulder and asked, in his unfailingly courteous way, if she would mind sitting down so that the people behind her could see.

You've probably already figured out that she was not the type of person who would say, "Oh dear, in my great enthusiasm I didn't realize I was interfering with everyone else's enjoyment of the show! Thank you for bringing that to my attention!" No, she was the type of person to sneer and say, "No! I want to stand! ...I don't care if nobody else is standing up! That's their problem!" Like, social contract? I never signed any social contract! (Her friends didn't seem to feel strongly either way; they pretended not to notice any of this was going on.) The woman next to me was so angry she went to find the usher. But fortunately, despite her outward defiance, Hey Nineteen girl did keep her butt in the seat after that. (Well, until they played "Black Friday," toward the end of the show. But, man, it's like, they're playing "Black Friday," is Friday! You gotta stand up for that, man! Like, what are the odds?!) I'm sure that was just because she wanted to sit down, though. She was still right.

I wondered whether the usher would have had the authority to do anything (if he hadn't been busy running around telling people to turn off their cameras). And I found that the Beacon has a surprisingly detailed, and slightly absurdist, code of conduct:
We ask all guests to be respectful of others around them. Any guest who interferes with the enjoyment of another individual during an event is subject to ejection from the building. During performances we ask all guests to remain seated for the duration of the performance. Depending on the demographics of certain events (such as concerts), standing may be accepted as normal protocol. Guests are permitted to stand if the majority of the audience is doing the same. Some entertainers will instruct the Beacon Theatre staff not to ask anyone to sit down during their performance.
"Guests are permitted to stand if the majority of the audience is doing the same." If you think about that too hard, it might just blow your mind.


floretbroccoli said...

I was at the same performance of Bette and Boo.

I saw Christopher Durang, but missed Walter Bobbie. (I'm sure I would have recognized him, since I saw him in the Nathan Lane/Faith Prince/Peter Gallagher Guys & Dolls.)

Boy, are you right about the constant talking! I, at least, though, didn't hear the subject matter as clearly as you did.

AND this was another of those audiences who seemed to be spring-loaded. The minute the play ended, so many of the patrons were out the door. I always wonder, when I see these people who can't wait three minutes to allow the actors to take their bows, whether, if the play were just a little longer, they'd have to leave before it ended.

I hate the way-too-automatic standing ovations one sees so frequently, but equally I hate people who can't be bothered to applaud at all.

Can we add that to the Beacon-style rules?

Mollie said...

How funny! Small world. Especially since it's a pretty small theatre.

I totally agree about people leaving before/during the bows -- I think it's inexcusably rude, unless you're about to turn into a pumpkin. Even if you hated the show, how discourteous to turn your backs on the actors while they're taking their bows. But I guess it stands to reason that audience members who don't realize the actors are real, live people who can hear them chatting/see them texting during the performance will not see any reason to applaud their performances when it's over, or realize that the actors can see them hurrying up the aisle. I mean, it's just like TV, right? I don't applaud the actors on my TV. And sometimes I turn it off before the credits roll. Why should live theatre be different?

(It was quite a crush getting out of there, though, wasn't it? The Laura Pels could stand to make exiting easier.)

Grunt said...

Your Beacon Theater experience reminds me of when I was siting in the orchestra to see Erasure there a few years back. Only this time it was the guy behind me.

He had come with friends and clearly had sort-of just tagged along. And throughout the entire performance first half of the performance kept saying...loudly..."Wow, they're so FAGGY! They're so GAY! Are they GAY?!"

I mean, first off, it's Erasure so, DUH. Even so, this is New York babe, "faggy" shouldn't even be part of the vocab. I am not quiet about things like that and I told him about half way through to shut the fuck up or I would beat the shit out of him and force some of the "faggy" guys in the audience to anally rape him...except I was fairly sure there would be no takers. I also suggested to his friends that they not bring him to a concert ever, ever, again.

Now I'm a 5'2" woman, so that doesn't quite have the punch it should but finally his friends managed to get him to shut up.